In 1989 Steven Soderbergh made his début with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” He took the film to the Cannes Film Festival for what turned out to be one of the most stressful experiences of his life. It was a time when independent films didn’t garner much respect, and he was having a very hard time securing distribution. If you look at the photos of him accepting the Palme d’Or award on stage with Jane Fonda, you can see in his face that he’s thinking of various ways he can make a getaway. The whole experience is detailed explicitly in Peter Biskind’s wonderful book “Down And Dirty Pictures”, a story which could put even the most resilient person off the idea of becoming a film maker.
Of course “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” eventually found a distributor, and it’s only in hindsight that it seems ridiculous Soderbergh wasn’t beating away Hollywood executives with a stick. When he turned up he was talented. He had a clear voice. And he was cool. His self-styled approach created a rather pleasing mix of arty originality with slick cinematography. Since 1989 he’s taken that approach and applied it to wide variety of material, from films like “Erin Brockovich” to “Traffic”, and “Che” to big ensemble blockbusters like “Ocean’s Eleven.” With every movie it felt like he was growing. And in recent years that’s seen him turn to a more minimalist style.
In 2008 he made the underrated “The Girlfriend Experience”, a film that was talked about with hushed whispers because he’d cast porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role. He made it rather cheaply with a single Red One camera, a digital camera that is able to record at a professional high resolution without costing too much. From that point on the camera became his baby. He even used it for last year’s hit “Magic Mike.” But now Soderbergh is calling it quits. We think. He’s said this before. This time however it looks like HBO-style TV projects are going to steal him away for good. “Side Effects” then will probably be his last hurrah, and it brings together all the great elements of his past worked without making it seem like a tribute reel.
One of the main criticisms of some of Soderbergh’s recent films, such as “The Girlfriend Experience”, was that he was too distant. He would position his digital camera far away from the action while we listened in on a conversation, which felt a little too voyeuristic for people’s comfort. There are scenes like that in “Side Effects”, but they are sparring. For the most part it is a high-class thriller with characters you can’t quite figure out.
The film is written by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, who wrote one of Soderbergh’s most recent successes “Contagion.” The script feels well grounded, even though it flies around from one thriller mode to another. Emily (Rooney Mara) is a young woman, waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison after being arrested for insider trading. He’s a big confident man, looking to get back into the game quickly, like his life has just been on pause for a few years. For Emily on the other hand, it’s a case of her life being taken away from her. She made her life about her husband, and then he goes away to prison on their wedding day. As a result, she fails to see any future direction. In other words, she has clinical depression. Martin hits the ground running as soon as he’s released, while Emily struggles to shift out of neutral. She’s vulnerable and very fragile. It’s almost hard to believe that this character will later have much more in common with Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.”
After a car accident, Emily is visited in hospital by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who works as a psychiatrist. He quickly picks up on Emily’s depression and suggests that she starts seeing him in private sessions. He prescribes some drugs for Emily, but they don’t work. All they do is make her feel sick. The drugs are designed to work over time, but Banks is the kind of the person who wants instant results. When he comes across an experimental pill called Ablixa, he feels he may have found the answer. And he gets $50,000 for participating in the study. He prescribes the drug to Emily, and for a while she feels much better. She has more energy during the day. She can have energetic sex with Martin at night. It’s not long though before side effects start kicking in.
Steven Soderbergh seems to enjoy telling this story; setting it up as a study of depression, then veering off into horror, before finally morphing it into a Hitchcockian heist movie. He knows that the characters should create the story, and not the other way around. And so he has four leads who are all very proactive, and at some point you will trust, doubt, like, and dislike every single one of them. Catherine Zeta-Jones provides the fourth lead as Dr. Victoria Siebert. She is Emily’s former therapist, and also one of the people behind the Ablixa drug.
While Steven Soderbergh allows the characters to bounce off each other with thrilling results, he’s able to bring his film making style full circle. He has plenty of artfully framed scenes, most notably when Emily crashes her car in a parking lot. He focuses strongly on Emily’s state of mind as she sits silently in the driving seat. The sound of her releasing the handbrake feels like a gun going off. Instead of showing too much gory detail when the car connects with the wall, he uses the impact as a blunt and rather shocking transition. He enjoys keeping the camera far away from the action, especially in public places, like we’re listening in on a private conversation. In other scenes he sticks with Hollywood tradition, usually in scenes involving Jude Law, and keeps the composition rather simple.
It’s not an easy thing to juggle both styles, but Soderbergh seems very comfortable here. Perhaps this is a sign that his plans for retirement should be taken seriously on this occasion. It’s certainly a big leap from the self confessed martyr who accepted the Palme d’Or 24 years ago. He’s 50 now, which is actually fairly young for a director currently promoting his swan song.
He’s certainly grown over those 24 years of directing movies, and perhaps now he’s finally come to terms with the fact that he’s one of the finest auteurs of his generation. Much like the characters in “Side Effects” grow and change throughout the movie, Soderbergh has changed throughout his career. He started out as an indie director, then moved sharply into Hollywood, before finally discovering the best of both worlds with his minimalist style. He takes his single Red One camera and his small crew and makes a film for worldwide release with a big cast. It’s a daring approach, but after 24 years, you get the feeling that he knows what he’s doing.
“Side Effects” brings many of the themes from Soderbergh’s previous work together, but it doesn’t feel like a compilation. It has all the energetic freshness of someone making their directorial début. When the film was press screened, he insisted that no critic be allowed in the cinema once the film started. Like Hitchcock, he wanted to let them know there was a big twist coming up, and he didn’t want them blabbing about it.
There’s actually more than one twist. There’s a chance it actually hits double figures. He even has the audacity to make Jude Law’s character rather inactive in the first act, before he actively moves into the second and reveals a totally different side to his personality in the third. All the way through scenes are scored expertly by composer Thomas Newman, who consistently creates the sense that something sinister is happening beneath the surface. Soderbergh gives the soundtrack a cool modern touch as well, with the addition of the track “The Forgotten People” by Thievery Corporation.
While the majority of twists and turns are intelligently executed, some will feel that the final 10 minutes is forced on them. One notable revelation does push the boundary of believability a little bit, but that shouldn’t been enough to put you off. The big twist that arrives before the audience has had a chance to settle into the movie certainly grabs attention, and Soderbergh has the skill to keep a firm hold of it throughout. It’s an intelligent adult film filled with suspense. If this is Steven Soderbergh’s final film, he’s concluded with an absolute thrill ride.
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